Why Duterte's pivot to 'new friends' benefits Russia too

MOSCOW, Russia – Close to midnight here on Monday, May 22, the Russians rolled out the red carpet to welcome Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte and his delegation.

It's easy to see how stronger ties with the superpower that is Russia would benefit the Philippines. But what does Russia stand to gain from warmer relations with a small developing country in another continent?

Philippine Ambassador to Russia Carlos Sorreta explained how the Philippines' pivot to Russia dovetails with Russia's "Turn to the East" policy.

Besieged with criticism from Western powers like the United States and the European Union, Russia is looking to Asia for opportunities.

"The timing is pretty good. The Philippine pivot meets Russian rebalance...I think the timing is great and we should take advantage of that," said Sorreta on Tuesday, May 23, during a press conference.

In 2016, Russia announced Asia would be its foreign policy priority in the 21st century. This new prioritization spelled an economic and political pivot to Asian countries.

Since then, there have been "billions and billions of dollars worth of cooperation" between Russia and countries like Japan, South Korea, and China.

"Russia has historically focused mostly on the European side, so now they are expanding their particular economic engagements on the eastern, Asian side of Russia," said Sorreta.

Opportunities in Asia

Improving relations with the Philippines is yet another manifestation of this "Turn to the East" policy. 

"Of all the Southeast Asian countries, the Philippines is the lowest in terms of relations with Russia. If they are able to improve that, it becomes a metric that the 'Turn [to the] East' policy is succeeding," said the ambassador.

The Philippines also holds a critical role this year as chairman of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), the regional bloc growing the fastest in Asia.

The focus on improving economic ties is best proven by the large business contingent that accompanied Duterte to Russia.

The contingent is composed of 260 businessmen interested in doing business with Russian companies or attracting Russian investment. In terms of size, this delegation comes second only to the business delegation to China which numbered around 400 businessmen.

The delegation members to Russia represent companies from a variety of industries including agriculture, tourism, and energy, according to Trade Undersecretary Rowel Barba.

Big names in business are represented, including Manuel Pangilinan's MVP Group of Companies and Michael Tan's LT Group of Companies.

Barba said 5 to 6 business-to-business deals are expected to be signed during Duterte's visit.

Economic ties with the Philippines and ASEAN in general give Russian companies access to a large market.

The Philippines, with its over 100 million people, boasts a young population and growing middle class. ASEAN has a combined market of 620 million people. 

If there is still any doubt that Duterte's trip to Russia focuses on the economy, take a look at the number of business-related events.

Duterte will attend a Philippines-Russia CEO roundtable on May 24, a Philippines-Russia business forum in Moscow on May 25, and another business forum in St Petersburg on May 26. – Rappler.com

Pia Ranada

Pia Ranada covers the Office of the President and Bangsamoro regional issues for Rappler. While helping out with desk duties, she also watches the environment sector and the local government of Quezon City. For tips or story suggestions, you can reach her at pia.ranada@rappler.com.